Shakespeare’s play is called A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So is A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream correct English?

If not, what would be the correct English?

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    "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is correct, as it refers to a specific night, Midsummer Night. "A Midsummer's Night's Dream," while not grammatically wrong, per se, is not idiomatic. – outis nihil Jul 10 '14 at 14:53
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    I think that people ought to be cautioned against asking whether anything by Shakespeare or any other author "is correct English". The concept is ludicrous, and treating it as a reasonable question does not help anyone. Shakespeare is archaic English, but it is -- by definition -- "correct English". – John Lawler Jul 10 '14 at 15:54
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    @JohnLawler, OP correctly rendered Shakespeare's title, with standard modernization of punctuation and spelling, and did not ask about that, but rather asked whether a certain departure from Shakespeare's precedent might also be correct English. That said, I am interested to learn your reasoning behind the claim that Shakespeare's is correct English by definition--not, mind you, that I take the least exception to that claim. – Brian Donovan Jul 10 '14 at 16:16
  • @BrianDonovan Perhaps it is because Shakespeare is held to be writing in (Early) Modern English as opposed to writing in (Late) Middle English. Since he’s one of the writers used to make that delineation, he must by the definition of what Modern English is be grammatical. Something like that. – tchrist Jul 10 '14 at 16:40
  • @tchrist, John's comment doesn't finally single Shakespeare out, though a case might well be made for doing so (based perhaps more on influence and reputation than on nearness to the ME/EModE cusp); any author's work, he writes, is by definition correct English. If we distinguish at all between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences and constructions (as John does, with his asterisks), then, in this age of internet self-publishing, the sentences of some "authors" are bound to fall on both sides of it; and to deny that ungrammatical amounts to incorrect seems like hair-splitting. – Brian Donovan Jul 10 '14 at 22:03

Shakespeare's title parses as "A (Midsummer Night)'s dream".

That is, a dream belonging to a midsummer night: a dream, or kind of dream, one has (or had) on a night in the middle of summer. This is contrasted with, say, the kind of dream you'd have on a rainy Tuesday night in February. In other words, though "Midsummer" and "Night" are technically two separate words, they're being treated as an indivisible unit.

Your alternative, though logical, loses somewhat of the original's evocative quality by breaking up this unit. You're saying "a dream that belongs to a night that belongs to a midsummer". Now, instead of the "kind of dream one has on a midsummer night", you're describing a dream you had on some night in the middle of some summer.

I'll also caution you that, this being a famous work, if you were actually to say or write the title with two possessives, you might put off a finickier audience (I guarantee someone would have the urge to correct you), which at best would be a distraction, and at worst might create some prejudices.

That said, if Shakespeare's work is just an example, and you're interested in the use of possessives in a more general way, your phrasing is clear and anyone hearing it would understand you. The distinction is really whether (Midsummer Night) is conceptually indivisible or the two things can operate independently (some night of some summer).

  • I believe Shakespeare's title refers to one specific night of all the year, a festal occasion with pagan roots; the play as a whole flirts with paganism by way of cocking a snook at Puritanism. – Brian Donovan Jul 10 '14 at 15:55
  • If that's the case (as in "the evening of the vernal equinox"), I'd say that the double-possessive blurs the line too much. "Midsummer Night" is a proper noun (like "Halloween" or "Christmas Eve"), and changing this to "Midsummer's Night's" permits too much leeway in interpretation (one could read it as "some night in midsummer", as opposed to specifically "the night of the vernal equinox"). – Dan Bron Jul 10 '14 at 15:58
  • Right, but I think it is the night of the summer solstice. – Brian Donovan Jul 10 '14 at 16:00
  • Yes, sorry, thinko. – Dan Bron Jul 10 '14 at 16:03

“A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” is quite grammatical, and means a dream dreamed during one of the nights of a mid-summer. It just is not the standard title of Shakespeare’s play. (Actually, neither the Q1 title page, nor in F1 the TOC or the play’s first page or the running header uses any apostrophe at all in the title, but “Midsommer” never has a terminal s and “Night” always does.)

I frequently hear the title garbled as “A Midsummer’s Night-Dream.” (And of course hardly anyone manages to do the apostrophes correctly in Love’s Labor’s Lost.)

  • Or indeed to spell Labour as the author did. – TimLymington Jul 10 '14 at 15:15
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    @TimLymington, Q1 has Loues labors loſt; F1, Loues Labour’s Loſt; how the author may have spelled it, as distinct from how the early compositors did, remains a mystery. – Brian Donovan Jul 10 '14 at 15:27

When examined as phrases, both are compound noun phrases.

In case of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Midsummer Night is a compound noun adjunct phrase with Night as the head-noun and Midsummer as the adjunct.

So if you were to parse the phrase out:

((((Midsummer:adjunct noun) Night:head noun)): noun adjunct)'s: possessive) (Dream: head-noun)

In case of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" using a possessive in the inner phrase makes the word Midsummer the head-noun instead.

(((((Midsummer:head-noun)'s: possessive) Night:noun adjunct)): noun adjunct)'s: possessive) (Dream: head-noun)

These subtleties are further, and nicely, discussed in A noun adjunct / the possessive case

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